Apologies for lateness.
Spoilers below the cut!
Captain America, within the Marvel universe, is a living relic of World War II. He signifies that war’s position within American pop-cultural history as “the good war,” the war in which the enemy was clearly evil and Manichaean logic can therefore declare the U.S. good.
By contrast, the name of his opposite number in this movie, the “Winter Soldier,” clearly refers to the Winter Soldier Investigation of 1971, in which the organization Veterans Against the Vietnam War sought to expose American war crimes in Vietnam, and to demonstrate that these were not isolated incidents, but a direct consequence of military policy.
In its title alone, then, Captain America: The Winter Soldier represents a transition from a world in which fighting “the bad guys” makes you good to one where how and why you fight matters as much as who you fight against, and it takes more than a team affiliation to be one of the good guys.
Captain America, of course, is always going to end up one of the good guys. He is the moral center of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as he often is in the comics as well); where Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor struggle with impulses to self-indulgence or violent temper, and Black Widow has a checkered past and a ruthless streak a mile wide, Captain Anerica’s only flaw is a lack of information. Sometimes he’s lost due to missing most of the 20th Century; other times it’s because he doesn’t know who to trust or all the details of what’s going on–but given the information, we can presume that anything he does will be treated by the film as morally right.
Case in point: Hydra’s plan is to kill millions to save billions. This makes them villains. Cap’s team kill thousands to save those millions; this makes them heroes. Of course the two are not equivalent; Hydra is seeking to kill millions, mostly civilians, in order to establish an authoritarian rule by fear. Captain America and the Shield loyalists kill thousands, mostly Hydra operatives, to maintain some semblance of freedom. But that’s the point; the difference between good and evil is not, as in the theme park version of World War II from which Captain America hails, a matter of killing members of the opposing team; what matters is why and how and when. Killing someone because an algorithm suggests they might someday upset the status quo of orderly society is evil; killing someone because it’s the only way to stop them from doing far greater evil is, broadly speaking within this movie’s moral universe, good.
The film’s criticism of the Manichaean worldview is vital, because that worldview underlies the post-9/11 security-and-surveillance culture which is the film’s main target. Much has been made by critics of this heavy-handed, but bold and extremely welcome attack on the way in which terrorism and the fear of terrorism has been used as an excuse by multiple world powers to undermine the civil liberties, civil rights, and privacy of their own citizens.
In this sense, the film builds on Iron Man 3
, in which the alien attack on New York in The Avengers
is framed as equivalent to 9/11, with people referring to it obliquely as “New York” and Tony Stark being told he needs to move past it and get on with his life. In Winter Soldier
, the comparison becomes blatant; the attack on New York is explicitly stated to be the impetus for Shield stepping up its surveillance efforts and taking a more “proactive” (read: authoritarian) role.
Interestingly, there seems to have been little attention paid to perhaps the most interesting use of 9/11 imagery in the film, namely the collision of an aircraft with the tallest building in the city, destroying both. In many ways this is an inversion of the normal depiction of 9/11, in which both the airplane and the building are filled with innocents, but evil people caused the plane to crash into the building. By contrast, the Helicarrier is part of Shield’s plot to control the world, which in turn is a front for Hydra’s plot to control the world, while the Triskelion is equally a center of Shield and Hydra corruption. Notably, the Triskelion is literally above the law–the view from the glass-walled elevator positions it directly across Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway from the Watergate Hotel, which is to say within D.C. city limits, and at 41 floors it is therefore in violation of federal law limiting the height of buildings in D.C., specifically the Height of Buildings Act of 1910. Debatably, the sub-orbital position of the Helicarriers also puts them literally above the law in the sense of being outside any nation’s airspace; however, they never actually reach that height.
Examine more closely, however, and the imagery isn’t quite so clearly a reversal so much as it is a reclaiming. To understand this, consider the hydra. In the movie, the significance of the hydra is in the organization’s motto: “destroy one head, and two grow in its place.” In regards to the Hydra organization itself, the hydra represents the futility of violence as a long-term solution to terrorism; even where a military response succeeds in stamping out a terrorist organization, it breeds the conditions of poverty, resentment, and powerlessness in which terrorist organizations grow. But there is one enormous difference between Hydra and real-world terrorism: Hydra is a single organization that is behind everything.
It is thus very easy to give Hydra, and by extension the film, a paranoid reading. Already fan speculation is rampant on whether the villains of the previous Iron Man films might have been Hydra members or splinter groups. The problem with this reading is that the film is clearly concerned very much with the real-world issues of government secrecy, surveillance, and authoritarianism, and a too-literal paranoid reading of Hydra leads to “9/11 was an inside job”-style conspiracy theorizing.
More interesting is to consider the other major feature of a hydra: that it is multiple independent entities which, deep under the water, connect in a single body. Shield does not know that it is a branch of Hydra; it believes itself to be an independent creature. This is key, because in real life, al-Qaeda and the NSA do not believe that they are part of the same phenomenon, and the suggestion that they are fundamentally connected, that they need one another to survive, is generally seen as absurd.
But both are organizations that thrive on fear. Terrorist organizations are Hydra in its overt mode, killing people and spreading panic and destruction. The security sector is Hydra in its subtle mode, watching, collecting data, silently and without legal or moral restraint taking out key individuals, all of it justified under the mantra of “protecting” people. Without overt Hydra, subtle Hydra has no justification for its surveillance and attacks; without subtle Hydra and the establishment it represents, overt Hydra has no autocratic powers to target. The difference between the movie and real life is that Hydra knows it is a single beast, and so coordinates the fighting between its heads in a grand show designed to keep the populace docile. In real life, the heads of the beast are fighting in earnest, and there is no conspiracy to dupe into people joining terrorist cells or voting in favor of more “security”. That’s what makes conspiracies so popular; it’s more comforting to imagine that someone is deliberately manipulating the system than to acknowledge that there are problems inherent in the system itself.
Ultimately, the movie rejects the conspiracy theory model and acknowledges that the system is the problem. Black Widow emerges as the real hero of the movie, striking the most important blow out of all the characters by exposing both Shield and Hydra–both the security sector and the terrorists–to the light, destroying secrecy and thereby breaking the power of fear. That this is the most heroic act in the movie is made clear by two factors, first that it is framed as a major personal sacrifice on Black Widow’s part, and second that she is the single character who changes the most over the course of the film.
Of course the ending of the movie shows that the system still endures. A blow has been struck against it, certainly, but it is not yet destroyed; the CIA still exists, as does at least one Hydra cell. The threat remains; cut off one head and two grow in its place. But lives were saved, and for now at least, those who put themselves above the law have been brought crashing down to Earth.
I have little doubt that the next several Marvel movies will fail utterly to pick up this particular ball. It’s simply not an appropriate topic for a silly CGI-fest space romp or a big crossover superhero “epic.” But it would fit well with a Black Widow movie, and Winter Soldier‘s writers and directors are already confirmed for Captain America 3, so there is hope that a couple of years down the line we will see a bit more of this kind of revolutionary impulse and anger.
Hopefully by then a little will have spread out into the real world. Don’t hold your breath.